OMAHA — After Michael Phelps briefly choked up, and coach Bob Bowman shed tears, the U.S.’ first five-time Olympic male swimmer turned to the business ahead.
Phelps, on the eve of his 31st birthday and with his eight-week-old son in attendance (sleeping, Phelps guessed), became the oldest man to win a U.S. Olympic Trials event on Wednesday.
“Where I am in life, things are probably going to hit me a lot more emotionally now than they would have in the past,” Phelps said after handing a stuffed animal from his award ceremony to baby Boomer.
So much about Wednesday’s victory gave Phelps reason for a brief pause to compose himself before addressing the media.
Everything that happened since what we all thought was Phelps’ last Olympic race in 2012 (before which he and Bowman also cried): Unretiring in 2014. The DUI arrest, suspension, rehab stint. Getting engaged. Becoming a father.
The event in which Phelps made his fifth Olympic team is loaded with emotional history, too.
“It’s very special to the family,” said Phelps, whose sister Whitney swam it at the 1996 Olympic Trials and finished a disappointing sixth, slowed by a back injury.
The 200m butterfly was referred to as “Michael Phelps’ signature event” for nearly a decade.
He made his first Olympic team solely in the 200m butterfly in 2000. He became the youngest man to break an individual swimming world record when he lowered the 200m fly mark for the first of eight times in 2001. He won some 60 straight 200m butterflies in a nine-year span.
Then the London Olympics happened. Phelps lost two individual races at those Games. He was fourth in the 400m individual medley, which he should never have raced because he had barely trained for the grueling event.
Later, the 200m butterfly. South African Chad le Clos stunned Phelps by .05 of a second. Phelps is going to Rio to get that one back.
Phelps provided a glimpse into his competitive drive when he said Wednesday night that he recently watched the 2012 Olympic 200m butterfly final for the first time not too long ago.
“I was so anti- watching that race, because I just didn’t even want to bring up the memories,” said Phelps, who earlier in his career wouldn’t let go of stinging defeats (like after he lost a 100m butterfly to Ian Crocker in 2003 and taped a picture of Crocker up to see it daily). “I noticed a lot that I did in that race that I’m not going to do again. I think I’m a lot more prepared this time.”
Phelps faded badly in the final 50 meters (.63 slower than le Clos) and had an awful finish. Phelps came up short on his last stroke and had to glide into the wall.
On Wednesday night, Phelps appeared to be losing a little ground to second-place Tom Shields with 25 meters left but created some breathing room in his final few strokes. He won by .97 of a second over Shields, who is primarily known as a 100m butterfly swimmer.
Phelps’ last 50 meters were swum in 31.90 seconds, sixth best out of the eight swimmers.
That kind of effort will not cut it against the strongest gold-medal threats Phelps as perhaps ever seen in the 200m butterfly going into an Olympics.
There is le Clos, still in his prime at age 24. He won the 100m butterfly at the 2015 World Championships (with Phelps absent due to the DUI ban) in an African record 50.56 seconds and then awoke Phelps by trash talking.
Phelps responded later that day by winning the 100m butterfly at the U.S. Championships in San Antonio in 50.45, the fastest time in the world since 2009.
“Let that swim make statements,” Phelps said then.
A Phelps-le Clos rematch, with a little chirping, would be one of the most anticipated events at the Rio Olympics as a head-to-head.
Then add this — Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh won the European Championships 200m butterfly on May 16 in 1:52.91, the fastest time in the world in that event since Phelps’ world record at the 2009 World Championships.
Cseh’s time in May was 1.93 seconds faster than Phelps’ time on Wednesday night. Cseh, 30, has won five Olympic medals combined in three Games, all silver or bronze in events won by Phelps.
When Phelps came out of a 20-month competitive retirement in 2014, he swore off the 200m butterfly.
“Nope, uh-uh,” Phelps said then. “I will tell you that that race and the 400m IM are definitely gone.”
Phelps warmed to re-adding it in early 2015, when he noticed the world’s top 200m butterfly times were not impressive. Even when le Clos and Cseh started surging late last year, Phelps kept at it because his own physical shape had reached its peak since the 2008 Olympics, perhaps earlier.
“This 200m fly that’ll happen in the next couple of weeks [in Rio in August] will probably be harder than any 200m fly I’ve ever done,” Phelps said Wednesday.
Before Phelps went to celebrate with Bowman and longtime training partner Allison Schmitt, and to prepare for his final two events this week, he remembered a meeting with Muhammad Ali before the 2004 Athens Games.
“I’ll never forget him holding his fist up to my face,” Phelps said, “and saying you better win all those gold medals.”Follow @nzaccardi